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In the wake of SOPA and PIPA’s defeat, a new online boycott, some 8,209 researchers strong, is beginning to gain momentum. The protest focuses on Elsevier, a publisher of renowned scientific journals such as Cell or The Lancet, whose aggressive business tactics have for years have been a thorn in scientists’ sides.
The main problem for scientists (or anyone interested in reading articles from the journals) is that in order to have access to the whole text- and not just the abstract or the first few paragraphs- they must pay upwards of forty dollars to rent them for a few days. They can also pay a few hundred dollars to own a copy.
In addition, many scientific articles in the U.S. are produced by government-sponsored organizations, which means that while taxpayers’ money funded the experiments, they do not get to see the articles without paying more money. This includes even the authors of the article.
While these outrageous prices are not anything new, the cause of the protest, a new bill titled the Research Works Act (RWA), is relatively recent. The bill, designed to negate the effects of the Open Access Policy created by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008, that allowed the public to view any article that is the result of NIH-funded research, was submitted to Congress last December.
A little more than a month later, Timothy Gowers, a mathematics professor at Cambridge University, posted a short article about his difficulties with Elsevier and his frustrations at the RWA. A few days later, he launched the boycott, calling on colleagues to boycott Elsevier.
While there are cheaper, alternative journals researchers can publish their work in, such as those run by professional societies, these do not come without their own can of worms.
Patricia Kelley, a Geology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, says, “Societies… tend to require authors to pay charges to publish their articles. For instance, Journal of Paleontology editorial policy states: ‘Authors are asked to pay as much page charges as they can for articles of all lengths. Paying extra page charges is mandatory for articles that run 26-40 pages.’”
Elsevier, despite costly subscription, can help get researchers around these problems. “The benefits to the authors are that publication is rapid and they don’t require page charges,” says Kelley.
Some previously “high cost” journals are beginning to make the switch. The Open Directory keeps a list of journals that have made the jump and are now free-for-all, or are trying out new payment methods. Elsevier, though, still stands strong. Despite its aggressive moneymaking tactics, the benefits of publishing through the company are obvious.
Says Kelley, “So authors find themselves in a tight spot. Do we pay a non-for-profit journal to publish our work, or do we publish for free with a company such as Elsevier?”